Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Subsidies and social engineering: or why we build roads.

This blog has looked at the business of building:
Futures Forum: How sustainable is the construction industry? ... 'Concrete is responsible for 7-10% of CO2 emissions' ... 'The industry must shift its emphasis beyond recycling and towards reuse'

It has also looked at the business of councils making money out of parking fees whilst withdrawing from the business of looking after infrastructure:
Futures Forum: Volunteers in the community: 'doing jobs for free' or 'empowering communities to take local action'?
Futures Forum: An alternative to councils simply making money out of parking charges: "mixed development"

Recently, it considered how the well-to-do cyclists lobby from a century ago ensured the upgrading of the road network:
Futures Forum: Councils 'take note' >>> “The future could be one where bikes rule the road, just as they did in the 1890s."

And it has considered the question of where the funding comes from for such infrastructure:
Futures Forum: Investing in roads in East Devon: who pays ... and who benefits?

But why do we build roads?

The question was raised on BBC Radio 4 last night:

The Victorians famously built wildly ambitious infrastructure projects, like roads, railways, sewers and tunnels. David Wighton asks whether we should copy their example.

The Victorians and their predecessors have been celebrated for their forward thinking, building assets which are continuing to benefit the British economy.
Yet some of their grandest projects left investors broke or actually created headaches for later generations.
So - which is more important: cost-benefit reports or sheer boldness of vision? 

David Wighton finds that the lessons from the past turn out to more complex than they first appear.

BBC Radio 4 - Build and Be Damned

Here are some of the notions covered - from visionary projects to vanity projects:


It is generally assumed that more infrastructure will bring more prosperity - and politicians seem always ready to reinforce that link - as if by spending on roads will 'bring jobs':
Hugo Swire: New infrastructure investment will mean more jobs and growth in East Devon | Exeter Express and Echo

Here's a little piece from the New Zealand government:

Why roads were built

Hopes and mixed success

Roads were viewed as an economic and social cure-all. Early newspapers and correspondence from isolated areas were full of hopes that roads would be built and prosperity would follow once an area was opened up.
But this did not always happen – or not immediately. After a road was built over Arthur’s Pass in 1866–67, linking Christchurch with the West Coast, only 80 to 90 people crossed the pass each week. Washouts were common, and maintenance costs were high. Gold did not flow over the pass – it was shipped directly to Melbourne. West Coast settlements dealt mainly with Melbourne from the late 1860s, as shipping costs were a fifth of the cost of dray delivery from Christchurch. The Press commented that the only thing the road levelled was the provincial treasury. Yet in the road’s first year 40,000 sheep and 25,000 cattle were driven over it to feed the gold miners.

Economic catalysts

However, on the whole, roads were crucial to the development of towns, farming, and other industries. Many of the roads built by public works in the 1870s proved their worth in the 1890s when the boom caused by refrigerated shipping led to more intensive farming, such as dairying. Farmers needed good access to dairy factories, railheads and ports. Roads were catalysts for economic development. Some proved their worth later – especially when tourism became a major industry in the 1980s. For example the Haast Pass road, completed in 1965, allowed tourists to do a loop trip of the South Island.
2. Why roads were built – Roads – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Of course, roads open up areas to more than just gold miners, cattle and tourists: 
Roads for Prosperity - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
It’s Time to Build Roads to Prosperity, Literally, IMF Says - Real Time Economics - WSJ

Indeed, it seemed a great idea at the time - as mapped out recently by the historian Jo Guldi in her analysis Roads to Power, featured on the Radio 4 programme:
Around 1780 a group of Scottish and Irish landlords started to think hard about what they were reading in this new economist, Adam Smith. And what they realized was that a system of infrastructure on a national level could break down local monopolies, and it could mean that they too could participate in the wealth of the industrial revolution being then experienced in England. And so they set about trying to persuade Parliament to give them sufficient cash to build roads out – an inter-kingdom highway system connecting London with her former colonial capitals of Dublin and Edinburgh. They were successful, and the inter-kingdom highway system was built over the course of thirty years. Thousands of miles of perfectly paved roads: the first expert-built infrastructure system of its kind in the world. Infrastructure on a national scale, connecting all sorts of grids of streets on the local and national level.
It was utopian thinking in 1780. Nobody had ever come up with such an idea. It was a new idea about how capitalism could work, if capitalism were going to defuse the wealth from the few guilds and few metropolises where people were enjoying the industrial revolution to everyone. So, a new idea of capitalism that worked for everybody.
From British Infrastructure to Net Neutrality - Harvard University Press Blog


And yet, by building more roads, we just create more demand for yet more roads:

Induced demand, or latent demand, is the phenomenon that after supply increases, more of a good is consumed. This is entirely consistent with the economic theory of supply and demand; however, this idea has become important in the debate over the expansion of transportation systems, and is often used as an argument against widening roads, such as major commuter roads. It is considered by some to be a contributing factor to urban sprawl.

Induced demand - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This is now generally understood and widely accepted:
What's Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse | WIRED
The "fundamental rule" of traffic: building new roads just makes people drive more - Vox
A study: Building roads to cure congestion is an exercise in futility | PERC – The Property and Environment Research Center
New roads create new traffic | Campaign For Better Transport

... although the likes of the RAC will not agree:
INDUSTRY OPINION >> Busting the road-building myths - Traffic Technology Today

In fact, it is a little more nuanced:


As traffic levels decline nationally in defiance of the usual state DOT forecasts projecting major increases, a number of commentators have claimed that we’ve reached “peak car” – the point at which the seemingly inexorable rise in vehicle miles traveled in America finally comes to an end.   But while this has been celebrated, with some justification in the urbanist world as vitiating plans for more roads, the implications for public policy haven’t been fully faced up to.
Indeed, the “peak car” is antithetical to the reigning urbanist paradigm of highways known as “induced demand.”  Induced demand is Say’s Law for roads: supply of lanes creates its own demand by drivers to fill them. Hence building more roads to reduce congestion is pointless. But if we’ve really reached peak car, maybe we really can build our way out of congestion after all.
Traffic levels have stabilized or even fallen in recent years. According to analysis by economist Doug Short featured in Streetsblog, aggregate auto travel peaked on a per capita basis in 2005 and has fallen since. Per capita traffic levels are now back to 1994 levels, a two decade rollback in traffic increases.
Urbanists Need to Face the Full Implications of Peak Car | Newgeography.com
The Irony of ‘Peak Car’ and the End of Induced Demand | Price Tags

And yet the issues around 'urban sprawl' are not going to go away:
Futures Forum: For community and against sprawl ..... 'Strong Towns' and 'the end of the suburbs'
Futures Forum: The End of Suburbia: ten years on


It's not just the problem of congestion, but of petrol/diesel-powered vehicles creating a stink, as the smogs of last February made clear:
Futures Forum: What to do about car emissions: from Paris to London...
Futures Forum: What to do about car emissions: the West Country

An article in the Independent last month looked at the government's targets for cutting carbon emissions:

Building roads is not necessarily a good idea

STEPHEN PLOWDEN Monday 10 November 2014

The action required to cut carbon for motor traffic would still be required if the problem of carbon did not exist

It is ironic the Government’s plan for massive spending on roads comes at the same time the UK is at risk of missing its target for cutting carbon emissions.
Transport is the sector for which carbon emissions remain stubbornly high.
More ironic still, the action required to cut carbon for motor traffic would still be required if the problem of carbon did not exist.
Of course, modern economies needs good roads, but we already have a large road network and are not making the best use of it. There should be no thought of adding to it until that has been put right. In addition, as everyone should know by now, road building does not ease congestion except in the very short-term.
Better traffic restraint in towns through parking controls, reallocation of road space and lower speed limits, is needed to improve transport efficiency. A nationwide system of road pricing for lorries, combined with better regulation, should have been instituted years ago. Reducing and enforcing speed limits on roads outside towns would check and reverse the tendency for road journeys to increase in number and length.
There are danger spots and bottlenecks that should be dealt with and road maintenance is in a poor state. But building roads simply to add capacity is not a good idea, even if, which there is some reason to doubt, road traffic is still growing.
Stephen Plowden is a transport planner 

Building roads is not necessarily a good idea - Comment - Voices - The Independent

And there is the wider impact on the environment of the oil industry which feeds our need for petrol and roads and infrastructure:
Futures Forum: Climate change: asphalt and urban heat islands
Futures Forum: Lewis Mumford: "The physical design of cities and their economic functions are secondary to their relationship to the natural environment."


Politicians and the public seem to have an insatiable demand for more 'infrastructure':
Public infrastructure - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Looking at the history of building roads, it has a lot to do with 'social engineering':

'In the seventeenth century, city-states began organizing their collective wealth around the provision of canals, the first government-built corridors for carrying commodities rather than soldiers. 
By the nineteenth century, infrastructure had taken the form of state-designed sewers and slum-clearance projects, tools of social as well as civil engineering.'

Whose Streets?

This brings us back to Jo Guldi and her book exploring the revolution in roads:

Roads to Power

Britain Invents the Infrastructure State

Roads to Power tells the story of how Britain built the first nation connected by infrastructure, how a libertarian revolution destroyed a national economy, and how technology caused strangers to stop speaking.
In early eighteenth-century Britain, nothing but dirt track ran between most towns. By 1848 the primitive roads were transformed into a network of highways connecting every village and island in the nation—and also dividing them in unforeseen ways. The highway network led to contests for control over everything from road management to market access. Peripheries like the Highlands demanded that centralized government pay for roads they could not afford, while English counties wanted to be spared the cost of underwriting roads to Scotland. 
The new network also transformed social relationships. Although travelers moved along the same routes, they occupied increasingly isolated spheres. The roads were the product of a new form of government, the infrastructure state, marked by the unprecedented control bureaucrats wielded over decisions relating to everyday life.
Roads to Power — Jo Guldi | Harvard University Press
Hague on Guldi, 'Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State' | H-War | H-Net

In other words, infrastructure is about the exercise of power.

For example, in seventeenth century France, Chandra Mukerji writes that the ‘transformation of the French landscape – with the construction of fortresses, factories, garrisons, canals, roads, and port cities – imprinted the political order onto the earth, making it seem almost an extension of the natural order’.
Mukerji, C.: Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi.

Meanwhile, the future is being haled in China - which has engaged in "the largest and fastest urbanisation project in the history of the world"
As Thomas J. Campanella observes, 'Over the last twenty years, the People’s Republic has undergone the greatest period of urban growth and transformation in history. Since the 1980s, China has built more skyscrapers; more office buildings; more shopping malls and hotels; more housing estates and gated communities; more highways, bridges, subways, and tunnels; more public parks, playgrounds, squares, and plazas; more golf courses and resorts and theme parks than any other nation on earth – indeed, than probably all other nations combined.'
The Concrete Dragon :: Princeton Architectural Press

To conclude, this faith in infrastructure has brought us to accept subsidising massive projects in social engineering. 

Kevin Carson has written a substantial piece in the 'Freeman' asking who the building of roads actually benefits:
The Distorting Effects of Transportation Subsidies : The Freeman : Foundation for Economic Education

He provides a summary:

Corporate capitalism is built on subsidized inputs, and profitable in large part because of them. It achieved growth in the 20th century through the extensive addition of subsidized inputs, like subsidized fossil fuels and large tracts of cheap land previously preempted (stolen) by the state, rather than the intensive approach of using existing inputs more efficiently.

A basic law of economics is that when you subsidize an input, people tend to use more of it. And businesses will tend to substitute that artificially cheap input for other inputs. The distorted price system gives an artificial advantage to firms most heavily dependent on that input. For example, subsidies to long-distance shipping infrastructure tend to benefit the firms with the largest market areas and the largest-scale production facilities shipping their output the furthest distance. It makes them artificially competitive against smaller, more localized — and more efficient — forms of production. It creates artificial economies of scale at levels where they would otherwise have leveled off, leading to an economy of artificially large firms serving centralized markets.

Center for a Stateless Society » Capitalism’s Running Out Of Water — And Everything Else

And last month he returned to the subject, by way of China, focussing on the United States, but of much wider interest:

But Who Will Build the Roads? 
China just announced a regional infrastructure plan to promote the integration of Asian markets under Chinese leadership — sparking predictably hypocritical outrage from the United States (“China’s Pouring $40 Billion Into a New ‘Silk Road,'” The Blaze, November 9). Chinese President Xi unveiled the Silk Road Fund to leaders of Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Tajikistan as they prepared for a summit on Asian-Pacific affairs. The announcement follows the creation of a $50 billion bank last month by China and twenty other governments to finance regional infrastructure.

According to unnamed US officials, Silk Road is an unnecessary duplication of existing World Bank efforts. The subtext, of course, is that the World Bank and other Bretton Woods institutions, along with Western foreign aid programs, were created to integrate the world economy under the control of Western capital (primarily that of the US and its trilateral junior partners in Western Europe and Japan). China, as a rising regional power and the second largest economy in the world, challenges the hegemony of global economic governance institutions created to serve American interests — much as the rising power of imperial Germany a hundred years ago challenged Britain’s unrivaled naval and colonial domination.

The hypocrisy comes in when you consider the sheer scale of US government global infrastructure financing since World War II, and its pretense that the goal of this financing is service to the neutral interests of some “international community.”

Some people (especially liberals) frame state-funded infrastructure as a neutral good that benefits everyone. It is no such thing. Depending on its scale, structure, and degree of overlap between its funders and its beneficiaries, it benefits some economic actors at the expense of others like any other state-funded input. One stereotypical question we anarchists like to attribute to liberals — usually delivered in a whiny, quavering voice — is “but who will build the roooaaads?”

In fact, despite the lionization of “infrastructure” as “progressive,” every major, centralized, nationally funded infrastructure project in American history has had politically organized business interests as its main constituency, serving primarily to subsidize their business models. In early US history it was mainly the Federalists and Whigs, parties of the national commercial interests, who promoted federally-funded “internal improvements.” The massively subsidized national railroad system, with its high-capacity central trunk lines and reliable schedule, gave rise to a nationwide wholesale and retail ecosystem, which in turn enabled giant industrial corporations to produce on a continental scale. Like the railroad system, the federally subsidized civil aviation and Interstate Highway systems made large nationwide corporations artificially competitive against local producers by enabling them to externalize increased distribution costs onto the taxpayer.

Some right-leaning libertarians whose hearts bleed for corporate interests adopt a pose of ignorance, echoing liberal arguments that “the roads benefit anyone who wants to use them,” or disingenuously twisting left-libertarian arguments that subsidized roads benefit some business interests at everyone else’s expense as a condemnation of large corporations for “driving on public roads.”

Some use similar chicanery on a global scale, asking how libertarians could object on principled grounds to obviously “neutral” activities like the US Navy keeping world sea lanes open for commerce. This is just a larger-scale libertarian equivalent of “but who will build the roooaaads?” For an answer we need only consult Adam Smith, who argued that public infrastructure should be financed by its beneficiaries: That public bridges be financed by tolls based on the weight of vehicles passing over them, and that navies be financed based on the value of merchant cargo shipped under their protection.

The single largest component of US “defense” spending is the US Navy, due to the enormous capital outlays embodied in its ships. And the main purpose of all those carrier groups in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific is to keep maritime choke points open and suppress piracy. Absent a state with the ability to tax society at large for the benefit of particular economic interests, merchant shipping (including oil tankers) would necessarily bear the full cost of this policing activity, adding significantly (to say the least) to shipping costs.

It’s hard to deny — unless one is economically illiterate — that this is a massively distorting subsidy, or that the provision of maritime protection on free market principles would result in a powerful shift of incentives toward supply chain relocalization and energy conservation.

Center for a Stateless Society » But Who Will Build the Roads? (Maritime Edition)

So, then, to summarise, it's all about subsidies:

... subsidies for 'big oil' and energy companies:
Futures Forum: Peak Oil... and EROEI... or Energy Return on Energy Investment
Futures Forum: "Levies, Damned Levies, and Statistics": Green levies and energy bills: What are the figures and what do people think?
Futures Forum: "... a reckless use of public money at a time when people are very concerned about energy costs.”
Futures Forum: Climate Change... from the bottom up... or... "Libertarianism – An Ecological Consideration"
Futures Forum: Green levies and the cost of energy... the Energy Companies Obligation, the warm homes discount scheme and the Green Deal
Futures Forum: What are the most efficient forms of energy? another look at nuclear...
Futures Forum: "Allowing fracking companies to drill on private land without first requiring a landowner’s permission."... or... "Neighborhood Environmentalism: Toward Democratic Energy"
Futures Forum: The growing economic cost of fossil fuels
Futures Forum: Climate change: Ralph Nader and the 'Kingpins of Carbon'
Futures Forum: The Global Warming Policy Foundation
Futures Forum: The $88bn fossil fuel bailout

... subsidies for 'big business' interests to the cost of small and local business:
Futures Forum: Lobbying: big business and big government in East Devon
Futures Forum: "Sustainable Growth"... and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
Futures Forum: The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Transition Town movement
Futures Forum: A look at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: Sidmouth Market Square: Saturday 11th Oct
Futures Forum: Crony capitalism and lemon socialism in East Devon........ The costs of "substantial growth and expanding business"
Futures Forum: Localism: The uses and abuses of power: "No politician willingly surrenders control downwards."
Futures Forum: "Smart growth for conservatives" at Resilience
Futures Forum: Small government and big banks........ "Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over"

... and even subsidies for 'big agriculture' at the expense of the smaller farmer:
Futures Forum: Norman Borlaug and the “Green Revolution”: a centenary

Knowle relocation project: Save Our Sidmouth welcomes MP's comments

Following the intervention of MP Hugo Swire in the relocation debate
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: "The prudent thing to do is put everything on hold."

... and the Leader of the District Council's rejection of this
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: District Council leader 'has refused to back down over the plans'

... the SOS group has issued the following statement:

Leader Paul Diviani rejects MP’s call to put Knowle relocation project on hold. Save Our Sidmouth responds.

December 30, 2014 by sidmouthsid 

Leave a comment

The following press release was issued today, 30/12/2014:

Last week, East Devon MP Hugo Swire informed the Press that he has asked East Devon District Council to put their Knowle relocation project on hold. He thinks that more intelligent ways of using the building should be more thoroughly explored; that he could not accept the loss of jobs going to Honiton; and that a number of his constituents had concerns about the relocation project’s figures.

He said that “This is not the time to do anything”… and added that EDDC should see how the structure of and funding for local government pans out before pushing on regardless with moving their office headquarters.

Save Our Sidmouth welcomes his comments, which closely reflect their own views.

We also welcome the similar views of prospective parliamentary candidate Cllr. Clare Wright and of EDDC Cllr. Graham Troman, both of whom argued strongly against the relocation plan at a full council meeting on the 17th December.

EDDC leader, Paul Diviani has apparently stated that he will not back down.

Save Our Sidmouth believes that the relocation plans are foolhardy in the present economic climate; are based on blind ambition, rather than detailed analysis; and that the costs of the move have been underestimated. We have been constantly pointing out the deficiencies in the relocation project for over two years.

Although EDDC refuses to reveal the full cost of the move, it is now evident that the recent decision to go ahead has been based on manipulated figures of “cost savings” over 20 years which have no foundation in reality.

Naturally, we applaud the desire of EDDC to become more efficient, but we believe that relocation, based on spurious arguments and figures, will not be cost neutral as EDDC maintain.

The move, if it goes ahead, will be a disaster for East Devon.

Richard Thurlow
Chair, Save Our Sidmouth

For Hugo Swire’s statement in detail, and links to further comment, go to http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/mp_swire_put_eddc_hq_relocation_on_hold

Leader Paul Diviani rejects MP’s call to put Knowle relocation project on hold. Save Our Sidmouth responds. | Save Our Sidmouth

See also:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: the District Council maintains that "on the back of various surveys and assessments, the financial burden on the council, and the tax payer, will be tens of thousands of pounds less, in time, by moving out." But the MP says it would be prudent to wait until "the next spending review, which is inevitably going to have an effect on local spending decisions and could seriously influence the viability of the project."

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Climate Change: Ursula le Guin: "Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings."

In the light of earlier blog entries looking at the different understandings of climate change
Futures Forum: Climate change: perceptions and solutions: a summary
Futures Forum: Climate change: "Conservatives don’t hate climate science. They hate the left’s climate solutions"

... and following on from the public demonstrations in the summer around the climate change talks at the UN in New York
Futures Forum: Climate change: from New York September 2014 to Paris November 2015
Futures Forum: Climate change: converse on the seafront: 21st September

... here is a piece from this week's Nation magazine:

Why Climate Change Is Not Inevitable

People's Climate March
The New York City People's Climate March in September 2014. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the twent-first day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.
In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).
Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).
How to Topple a Giant
To use Le Guin’s language, physics is inevitable: if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet warms, and as the planet warms, various kinds of chaos and ruin are let loose. Politics, on the other hand, is not inevitable. For example, not so many years ago it would have seemed inevitable that Chevron, currently the third biggest corporation in the country, would run the refinery town of Richmond, California, as its own private fiefdom. You could say that the divine right of Chevron seemed like a given. Except that people in Richmond refused to accept it and so this town of 107,000 mostly poor nonwhites pushed back.
In recent years, a group of progressives won election to the city council and the mayor’s seat, despite huge expenditures by Chevron, the corporation that also brought you gigantic oil spills onshore in Ecuador and offshore in Brazil, massive contamination from half a century of oil extraction in Nigeria, and Canadian tar-sands bitumen sent by rail to the Richmond refinery. Mayor Gayle McLaughin and her cohorts organized a little revolution in a town that had mostly been famous for its crime rate and for Chevron’s toxic refinery emissions, which periodically create emergencies, sometimes requiring everyone to take shelter (and pretend that they are not being poisoned indoors), sometimes said—by Chevron—to be harmless, as with last Thursday’s flames that lit up the sky, visible as far away as Oakland.
As McLaughin put it of her era as mayor:
“We’ve accomplished so much, including breathing better air, reducing the pollution, and building a cleaner environment and cleaner jobs, and reducing our crime rate. Our homicide number is the lowest in 33 years and we became a leading city in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita. We’re a sanctuary city. And we’re defending our homeowners to prevent foreclosures and evictions. And we also got Chevron to pay $114 million extra dollars in taxes.”
For this November’s election, the second-largest oil company on Earth officially spent $3.1 million to defeat McLaughin and other progressive candidates and install a mayor and council more to its liking. That sum worked out to about $180 per Richmond voter, but my brother David, who’s long been connected to Richmond politics, points out that, if you look at all the other ways the company spends to influence local politics, it might be roughly ten times that.
Nonetheless, Chevron lost. None of its candidates were elected and all the grassroots progressives it fought with billboards, mailers, television ads, websites, and everything else a lavishly funded smear campaign can come up with, won.
If a small coalition like that can win locally against a corporation that had revenues of $228.9 billion in 2013, imagine what a large global coalition could do against the fossil-fuel giants. It wasn’t easy in Richmond and it won’t be easy on the largest scale either, but it’s not impossible. The Richmond progressives won by imagining that the status quo was not inevitable, no less an eternal way of life. They showed up to do the work to dent that inevitability. The billionaires and fossil fuel corporations are intensely engaged in politics all the time, everywhere, and they count on us to stay on the sidelines. If you look at their response to various movements, you can see that they fear the moment we wake up, show up, and exercise our power to counter theirs.
That power operated on a larger scale last week, when local activists and public health professionals applied sufficient pressure to get New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation banning fracking statewide. Until the news broke on December 17th, the outcome had seemed uncertain. It’s a landmark, a watershed decision: a state has decided that its considerable reserves of fossil fuel will not be extracted for the foreseeable future, that other things—the health of its people, the purity of its water—matter more. And once again, the power of citizens turned out to be greater than that of industry.
Just a few days before the huge victory in New York, the nations of the world ended their most recent talks in Lima, Peru, about a global climate treaty—and they actually reached a tentative deal, one that for the first time asks all nations, not just the developed ones, to reduce emissions. The agreement has to get better—to do more, demand more of every nation—by the global climate summit in Paris in December of 2015.
It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here, but easy to see that activists and citizens will have to push their nations hard. We need to end the age of fossil fuels the way the French ended the age of absolute monarchy. As New York State and the town of Richmond just demonstrated, what is possible has been changing rapidly.
Three Kinds of Hero
If you look at innovations in renewable energy technologies—and this may be an era in which engineers are our unsung heroes—the future seems tremendously exciting. Not long ago, the climate movement was only hoping against hope that technology could help save us from the depredations of climate change. Now, as one of the six great banners carried in the 400,000-strong September 21st climate march in New York City proclaimed, “We have the solutions.” Wind, solar, and other technologies are spreading rapidly with better designs, lower costs, and many extraordinary improvements that are undoubtedly but a taste of what’s still to come.
In parts of the United States and the world, clean energy is actually becomingcheaper than fossil fuels. The price of oil has suddenly plunged, scrambling the situation for a while, but with one positive side benefit: it’s pushed some of the filthier carbon-intensive, cutting-edge energy extraction schemes below the cost-effective point for now.
The costs of clean energy technology have themselves been dropping significantly enough that sober financial advisers like the head of the Bank of England are beginning to suggest that fossil fuels and centralized conventional power plants may prove to be bad investments. They are also talking about “the carbon bubble” (a sign that the divestment movement has worked in calling attention to the practical as well as the moral problems of the industry). So the technology front is encouraging.
That’s the carrot for action; there’s also a stick.
If you look at the climate reports by the scientists—and scientists are another set of heroes for our time—the news only keeps getting scarier. You probably already know the highlights: chaotic weather, regular records set for warmth on land and at sea (and 2014 heading for anall-time heat high), 355 months in a row of above-average temperatures, more ice melting faster, more ocean acidification, the “sixth extinction,” the spread of tropical diseases, drops in food productivity with consequent famines.
So many people don’t understand what we’re up against, because they don’t think about the Earth and its systems much or they don’t grasp the delicate, intricate reciprocities and counterbalances that keep it all running as well as it has since the last ice age ended and an abundant, calm planet emerged. For most of us, none of that is real or vivid or visceral or even visible.
For a great many scientists whose fields have something to do with climate, it is. In many cases they’re scared, as well as sad and unnerved, and they’re clear about the urgency of taking action to limit how disastrously climate change impacts our species and the systems we depend upon.
Some non-scientists already assume that it’s too late to do anything, which—as premature despair always does—excuses us for doing nothing. Insiders, however, are generally convinced that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.
After that huge climate march, I asked Jamie Henn, a cofounder of and communications director for 350.org, how he viewed this moment and he replied, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart,” a perfect summary of the way heartening news about alternative energy and the growth of climate activism exists in the shadow of those terrible scientific reports. This brings us to our third group of heroes, who fall into the one climate category that doesn’t require special qualifications: activists.
New technologies are only solutions if they’re implemented and the old carbon-emitting ones are phased out or shut down. It’s clear enough that the great majority of fossil fuel reserves must be kept just where they are—in the ground—as we move away from the Age of Petroleum. That became all too obvious thanks to a relatively recent calculation made by scientists and publicized and pushed by activists (and maybe made conceivable by engineers designing replacement systems). The goal of all this: to keep the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), a target established years ago that alarmed scientists are now questioning, given the harm that nearly 1 degree Celsius of warming is already doing.
Dismantling the fossil-fuel economy would undoubtedly have the side effect of breaking some of the warping power that oil has had in global and national politics. Of course, those wielding that power will not yield it without a ferocious battle—the very battle the climate movement is already engaged in on many fronts, from the divestment movement to the fight against fracking to the endeavor to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and others like it from delivering the products of the Alberta tar sands to the successful movement to shut down coal-fired power plants in the United States and prevent others from being built.
Climate Activism: Global and Local Movements
If everyone who’s passionate about climate change, who gets that we’re living in a moment in which the fate of the Earth and of humanity is actually being decided, found their place in the movement, amazing things could happen. What’s happening now is already remarkable enough, just not yet adequate to the crisis.
The divestment movement that arose a couple of years ago to get institutions to unload their stocks in fossil fuel corporations started modestly. It is now active on hundreds of college campuses and at other institutions around the world. While the intransigence or love of inertia of bureaucracies is a remarkable force, there have been notable victories. In late September, for instance, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—made fat upon the wealth of John D. Rockefeller’s founding role in the rise of the petroleum industry—pledged to divest its $860 million in assets from fossil fuels. It is just one of more than 800 institutions, including church denominations, universities, cities, pension funds, and foundations from Scotland to New Zealand to Seattle, that have already committed to doing so.
The Keystone pipeline could have been up and running years ago, delivering the dirtiest energy from Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast with little fanfare, had activists not taken it on. It has become a profoundly public, hotly debated issue, the subject of demonstrations at dozens of presidential appearances in recent years—and in the course of this ruckus, a great many people (including me) were clued in to the existence of the giant suppurating sore of sludge, bitumen, and poison lakes that is the Alberta tar sands.
Canadian activists have done a similarly effective job of blocking other pipelines to keep this landlocked stuff from reaching any coast for export. One upshot of this: quite a lot of the stuff is now being put on trains (with disastrous results when they crash and, in the longer term, no less disastrous outcomes when they don’t). This exceptionally dirty crude oil leaves behind extremely high levels of toxins in the mining as well as the refining process.
As The Wall Street Journal recently reported:
“The Keystone XL pipeline was touted as a model for energy independence and a source of jobs when TransCanada Corp. announced plans to build the 1,700-mile pipeline six years ago. But the crude-oil pipeline’s political and regulatory snarls since then have emboldened resistance to at least 10 other pipeline projects across North America. As a result, six oil and natural-gas pipeline projects in North America costing a proposed $15 billion or more and stretching more than 3,400 miles have been delayed, a tally by The Wall Street Journalshows. At least four other projects with a total investment of $25 billion and more than 5,100 miles in length are facing opposition but haven’t been delayed yet.”
The climate movement has proved to be bigger and more effective than it looks, because most people don’t see a single movement. If they look hard, what they usually see is a wildly diverse mix of groups facing global issues on the one hand and a host of local ones on the other. Domestically, that can mean Denton, Texas, banning fracking in the November election or the shutting down of coal-powered plants across the country, or the movement gearing up in California for an immense anti-fracking demonstration on February 7, 2015.
It can mean people working on college divestment campaigns or rewriting state laws to address climate change by implementing efficiency and clean energy. It can mean the British Columbian activists who, for now, have prevented a tunnel from being drilled for a tar-sands pipeline to the Pacific Coast thanks to a months-long encampment, civil disobedience, and many arrests at Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver. One of the arrested wrote in the Vancouver Observer:
“[S]itting in that jail cell, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. One that I was only partially aware that I have been carrying for years now. I am ashamed by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty and our increasingly contemptible position on climate change. If these are the values of our society then I want to be an outlaw in that society.”
Making the Future
Just before that September climate march in New York, I began to contemplate how human beings a century from now will view those of us who lived in the era when climate change was recognized, and yet there was so much more that we could have done. They may feel utter contempt for us. They may regard us as the crew who squandered their inheritance, like drunkards gambling away a family fortune that, in this case, is everyone’s everywhere and everything. I’m talking, of course, about the natural world itself when it was in good working order. They will see us as people who fiddled while everything burned.
They will think we were insane to worry about celebrities and fleeting political scandals and whether we had nice bodies. They will think the newspapers should have had a gigantic black box above the fold of the front page every day saying “Here are some stories about other things, BUT CLIMATE IS STILL THE BIGGEST STORY OF ALL.”
They will think that we should have thrown our bodies in front of the engines of destruction everywhere, raised our voices to the heavens, halted everything until the devastation stopped. They will bless and praise the few and curse the many.
There have been heroic climate activists in nearly every country on the planet, and some remarkable things have already been achieved. The movement has grown in size, power, and sophistication, but it’s still nowhere near commensurate with what needs to be done. In the lead-up to the UN-sponsored conference to create a global climate treaty in Paris next December, this coming year will likely be decisive.
So this is the time to find your place in a growing movement, if you haven’t yet—as it is for climate organizers to do better at reaching out and offering everyone a part in the transformation, whether it’s the housebound person who writes letters or the 20-year-old who’s ready for direct action in remote places. This is the biggest of pictures, so there’s a role for everyone, and it should be everyone’s most important work right now, even though so many other important matters press on all of us. (As the Philippines’s charismatic former climate negotiator Yeb Sano notes, “Climate change impinges on almost all human rights. Human rights are at the core of this issue.”)
Many people believe that personal acts in private life are what matters in this crisis. They are good things, but not the key thing. It’s great to bicycle rather than drive, eat plants instead of animals, and put solar panels on your roof, but such gestures can also offer a false sense that you’re not part of the problem.
You are not just a consumer. You are a citizen of this Earth and your responsibility is not private but public, not individual but social. If you are a resident of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking world, you are part of the system, and nothing less than systemic change will save us.
The race is on. From an ecological standpoint, the scientists advise us that we still have a little bit of time in which it might be possible, by a swift, decisive move away from fossil fuels, to limit the damage we’re setting up for those who live in the future. From a political standpoint, we have a year until the Paris climate summit, at which, after endless foot-shuffling and evading and blocking and stalling and sighing, we could finally, decades in, get a meaningful climate deal between the world’s nations.
We actually have a chance, a friend who was at the Lima preliminary round earlier this month told me, if we all continue to push our governments ferociously. The real pressure for change globally comes more from within nations than from nations pressuring one another. Here in the United States, long the world’s biggest carbon-emitter (until China outstripped us, partly by becoming the manufacturer of a significant percentage of our products), we have a particular responsibility to push hard. Pressure works. The president is clearly feeling it, and it’s reflected in the recent US-China agreement on curtailing emissions—far from perfect or adequate, but a huge step forward.
How will we get to where we need to be? No one knows, but we do know that we must keep moving in the direction of reduced carbon emissions, a transformed energy economy, an escape from the tyranny of fossil fuel, and a vision of a world in which everything is connected. The story of this coming year is ours to write and it could be a story of Year One in the climate revolution, of the watershed when popular resistance changed the fundamentals as much as the people of France changed their world (and ours) more than 200 ago.
Two hundred years hence, may someone somewhere hold in their hands a document from 2021, in wonder, because it was written during Year Six of the climate revolution, when all the old inevitabilities were finally being swept aside, when we seized hold of possibility and made it ours. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” says Ursula K. Le Guin. And she’s right, even if it’s the hardest work we could ever do. Now, everything depends on it.

Why Climate Change Is Not Inevitable | The Nation